MINNEAPOLIS -- After a painfully slow first half of the season, the signs of progress are coming quickly for the young Minnesota Timberwolves in Year One of their post-Kevin Garnett rebuilding plan.
The latest -- and most emphatic -- sign came in stunning fashion on Sunday against the New Jersey Nets.
Al Jefferson had a career-high 40 points, hit the go-ahead free throws with 11.4 seconds to go, and lifted the Wolves to a 98-95 victory over the Nets, who have lost nine in a row.
"Twenty games ago, we would have lost the game tonight," said Jefferson, whose Wolves trailed by 15 points with 10 minutes remaining. "That just shows how much we've improved. We've stopped putting our heads down when teams make a run."
Richard Jefferson scored 35 points and Vince Carter added 25. But after Ryan Gomes hit a 3-pointer in the corner to cut New Jersey's lead to 95-94 with 40 seconds to go, Carter attempted an ill-advised fallaway jumper in the final 25 seconds.
Al Jefferson hit his free throws, and Richard Jefferson missed a short jumper on the other end to extend New Jersey's skid, its longest since November 2004.
"Look, we have to be hungry," Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "We have to be a desperate team for a win. We're in a position now where we have lost nine games in a row, and each one is going to be harder."
Carter and Richard Jefferson created matchup nightmares for the Timberwolves all game long, and the Nets controlled the game for the first 38 minutes.
But rookie Corey Brewer came through with some surprising offense in the crunch, scoring all of his eight points in the final 8 minutes to give Al Jefferson some much-needed help.
Until that point, the big fella had carried the Wolves all by himself to keep them in the game. He scored 20 of the team's 38 first-half points and fought all five Nets on the boards all night long, grabbing 19 of the team's 40 boards for the game.
After losing 31 of their first 36 games, the Timberwolves have now won three of their last four and also have one-point losses to Denver and Boston in this five-game stretch.
"We're moving in the right direction and we're growing," Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman said.
They looked to be on their way to their second straight loss when Carter hit a jumper to give New Jersey an 80-65 lead with 10 minutes to go. But unlike most of the season, the Wolves didn't fold down the stretch.
Gerald Green hit two 3-pointers and Brewer got to the line for six key foul shots to help Jefferson complete the rally.
"Man, it feels really good," Brewer said. "We needed a win like that."
The Nets certainly didn't need a loss like this -- to the team with the worst record in the league in a game they led for 45 of the 48 minutes.
Forward Josh Boone called it "the worst kind of loss," lamenting letting a seven-point lead slip away in the final 1:15.
"Think it is pretty much how things are going right now," Boone said. "We have to find a way, one way or another."
All the struggles created the inevitable trade rumors involving Jason Kidd, who said before the game that he expected such reports to surface during difficult times.
With that, the Nets limped into the Target Center to conclude a six-game, 10-day road trip, and still managed to be the aggressors from the start.
Richard Jefferson, Sean Williams and Boone attacked the offensive glass, helping to rack up 17 personal fouls on the Timberwolves in the first half.
But they were done in by some lazy defense down the stretch and 13 missed free throws, including two by Jason Collins with 56 seconds to go that would have given them a six-point lead.
"This is how it goes when things are going bad," Frank said. "You lose games that you are in control that you should win. But, you have to kind of break through the karma and just keep on fighting, keep your head up."
- Kidd made three straight 3-pointers in the final 4:45 of the third quarter to tie Allan Houston (1,305) for 12th in league history in career 3-pointers made.
- Beatles fan? Veteran official Joey Crawford, long considered one of the grumpier referees in the business, showed a lighter side in the third quarter during a timeout, singing along to I Saw Her Standing There.